*This is an essay I wrote while studying abroad for a sociology class titled: Religion, Witchcraft, and Magic.*
Screaming Serenade: Punk Concerts as Religious Rituals
When thinking of an everyday religious experience, something that most people who deem themselves as “religious” participate in regularly, would be the notion of attending church or some form of mass or ceremony. We see this all the time, the streets lined up with cars around a church on Sunday mornings or Saturday evenings, people stereotypically dressed in their “Sunday best” because one has to be clean and proper while presenting themselves to God. Even though this is the first idea that arises when discussing religious experiences, in this essay I aim to discuss whether the theories of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim are prevalent in the more off-beat religious gatherings of today.
Imagine a dark and overly crowded room with low ceilings and sloped floors from constant pressure and movement. There is a small set of stairs leading down to a more open space, directly in front of a platform. Raised up around that open area is more standing room with a balcony to hold the mass of people up against. Everyone in the room is eagerly waiting, almost impatiently. Sweat is being absorbed into the air, mixing with other people’s sweat and excitement as it pulses through the room. Soon the lights will dim completely, allowing the colored light show to begin as the squeal of guitars and the loud beating of drums echo against the walls. The concert-goers scream with joy, their savior has come, has taken the stage and is going to preach to them in a way that they actually understand. I am recanting the scene that took place before me at the Underworld, a venue in Camden Town, London for a Chelsea Grin concert; a band notorious for their deep, guttural “screaming” sounds alongside their melodic vocals.
This concert, unlike any I had been to before, was a religious experience for everyone in the crowd. When it comes to the younger generation, especially with the people I was surrounded myself with that night, church every Sunday might not necessarily be a priority. Everyone has their reasons for either attending or not attending, conforming or not conforming, to a certain religious doctrine, and I believe that the people jumping up and down while violently pushing each other to the beat had found their own religious doctrine outside of a church and it was quite beautiful to witness, and I will allow for some religious theorists to reinforce this claim.
The first theorist is Karl Marx, born in 1818 and died in 1883, and he would probably disagree with the notion that rock concerts are like a religion, specifically because he dislikes religion so much. He believes that religion is unnecessary and he simply detested everything religious. He explains that religion is basically a painkiller; that it is a drug that takes our minds off of the real suffering that is occurring. The concert-goers, who belt out the lyrics almost before the lead singer can even get them out of his mouth, are using this concert as a distraction, as a drug from the real world that awaits them when the lights come on and the music rings in their ears. They come here to feel the beat echo through their hearts, to be a part of this collective feeling, which is the same reason that devoutly religious people attend mass or other forms of a congregation.
Marx says that religion is for the poorer people because they are the ones suffering and therefore need something to take their minds off of this terrible pain and that it becomes a way to solve their problems; this is one of the reasons that Marx dislikes religion to his extent. The concerts, therefore, are a place for anyone and everyone to join in on something that is a distraction for the real world. Perhaps Marx would actually equate a concert like this as a religious experience; however, he would dislike it as well if people were treating it like a religious ritual. He would want the people to see it simply as a concert and nothing divine, but that is not what the people see or feel when they attend these shows.
The next theorist is Max Weber who believes that religion, power, and domination are all interconnected. He lists out three different types of authority: traditional authority, legal rational authority, and charismatic authority. Focusing on the third form, charismatic authority can fit into my example of religious experience. Weber says that charismatic authority involves an individual who has extraordinary power to control and inspire devotion in other individuals, fully knowing that people will follow. It is almost as if these few individuals have a gift of grace. The list we came up with in class included prophets, leaders, and warriors, but I am going to add to that list lead singers. While at concerts like these, one main aspect that everyone tries to participate in is called a “mosh pit” which is where the people in the crowd open up a circle pit and simply run around pushing each other violently, dance as if entranced, and it usually ends with someone getting slightly hurt or even worse: trampled. Why would normal people participate in something that they know is going to hurt them? However, the minute the lead singer shouts into the crowd that he wants to see a pit open up, everyone instantly abides to his commands. They willingly enter themselves into situations that they can possibly get injured just because their “savior” told them too. No one seemed to question it and everyone in the pit was enjoying it so much, it was hard to retain my self control and not join them.
Anthony Kronman compiled Weber’s works into one place and he discusses all of Weber’s famous theories. In the chapter titled “Authority,” Kronman goes through Weber’s different versions of authority, giving adequate time to each type. For charismatic authority, Kronman says that Weber believes that: “Charisma is truly a revolutionary force…since it breaks up existing authority structures by introducing novel claims of legitimacy” (50). Generally, “screamo,” metalcore, hard-alternative-rock music is frowned upon in normal society, and they do a very good job of discussing this in their hard lyrics. Since it is not widely accepted, like some religions, the followers are only driven harder to prove their faith and loyalty to their leaders. These bands break apart the other forms of society that typically disregard them and they ultimately create a place for their fans to feel at home and feel a part of a collective experience. By doing this, these bands and lead singers legitimize their authority.
Finally, there is Emile Durkheim, who came after Marx and Weber, but still pulled from some of their ideals. In regards to the lead singer being a God-like figure to the fans in the venue below them, and the whole concert being a religious experience, I believe that out of all theorist discussed, Durkheim would agree the most with this. Durkheim’s theory explains that religion is important to the sense of social purpose and that it ultimately builds the morals of society that everyone follows. In relation to this, God is an abstraction through which we cement our identities and roles in society. These roles, and society in general are worshipped by the people when they are allowed to worship collectively. The screaming, sweating, fist-pounding participants in the crowd are collectively “worshipping” their “god” on stage before them and they are given a sense of purpose by being here. As an outsider, someone who is unfamiliar with the music blasting through the speakers and the artists on stage, I did feel like anyone and everyone was welcome to join this group of people. There was not just one set of people in the room; the crowd varied in age, gender, race, etc. signifying that their group is a diverse one and it was very easy to join in because it was such a collective experience. There are the different roles, from those that stand ground right at the foot of the stage, to those creating the most pit, and ending with those that stand in the background who simply nod along with the music. Everyone may have their different roles, but as mentioned before, it is still very collective.
So how is a rock concert like a religion? Tobias Werler and Christoph Wulf address this idea in their book Hidden Dimensions of Education: Rhetoric, Rituals, and Anthropology, which is a collection of articles and essays by different authors. The chapter “Pop Concerts as Modern Religious Rituals” by Ruprecht Mattig found in this collection firmly discusses this topic. Mattig takes a performance by pop artist Robbie Williams and points his attention “towards [how] pop concerts…show, the anthropological function of religious rituals for modern societies” (149). Mattig questions why the “thousands of people [come to] sing a song about angels together in ecstasy” and firmly states that his belief is that these people are “performing a modern religious ritual” (151). Obviously, there are those who hold a disbelief in this type of music and also truly believe that a rock concert cannot be a religious experience, it is, in fact, a substitute religious act, and Mattig goes on to use Durkheimian theory to back up his ideas. He, too, points out Durkheim’s theory of the collective experience which allows for “courage and ardour” in those that participate in these rituals. However, the courage does not last forever, says Mattig, so therefore the people have to come and perform these certain types of rituals again in order to feel the same transcendence, or as Durkheim says that these religious rituals give the participants: “impressions of joy, of interior peace, of serenity, of enthusiasm which are, for the believer, an experimental proof of his beliefs” (152). And this is why pop concerts, rock concerts, all types of concerts are still selling out stadiums and performing every day and night.
Nothing proves these ideas more than from the concertgoers themselves. Alternative Press remains a very reputable magazine for all things alternative music, from new bands and concerts to interviews with artists and fans and anything that could be affecting the alternative world. Their online site contains many great articles written by fans and other lesser-known journalists for the magazines. For example, the article “The 9 Phases Of Post-Concert Depression” written by Cassie Whitt, provides an excellent example of what fans feel when the lights come on and the stage clears. Whitt examines how when the fans leave the venue they believe that their lives have been either touched or changed or both, by the artist. Starting with “Euphoria” and going through “Reflection, Realization, Reality, Feeling Outcasted, Stalking, Lake of Impulse Control, Acceptance, and Living” which all fully support Mattig and Durkheim’s notion of having to continue performing this ritual in order to maintain the euphoria that comes from it. Obviously, Mattig and Alternative Press are not scholarly articles or sources, but perhaps that fits the subject completely. These fans and concert-goers are finding alternative means to fulfill their need for a collective experience and also to perform the religious rituals that give them such transcendence and euphoric feelings.
Marx would agree with the notion that the people see these concerts as a religious ritual that they can participate in, but he would severely dislike it. To him, religion is a facade that is there to disguise the pain that the poorer people are feeling, which is exactly what a good portion of the fans are there to feel: something that distracts them from the pain of their daily lives. Weber would probably agree with this theory as well because he can see the impact that the band, lead singer, artist, and their charismatic authority have on the people that attend the concert. He can see that the fans and band together have created their own “world” that they can all feel at home in. Durkheim, overall, could agree the most with this essays purpose in proving that a screaming, hardcore concert is an alternative to a religious experience. At this concert, the lead singer is the God, the lyrics are the doctrine and the teachings, and the fans that fill the stadiums and venues are the practitioners and believers that come to feel something within them, just like those that attend church every week.
Kronman, Anthony T. Max Weber. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1983. Print.
Mattig, Ruprecht. “Pop Concerts as Modern Religious Rituals.” Hidden Dimensions of Education: Rhetoric, Rituals, and Anthropology. By Tobias Werler and Christoph Wulf. Münster: Waxmann, 2006. 149-64. Print.
Whitt, Cassie. “The 9 Phases of Post-Concert Depression.” Alternative Press. Alternative Press, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.